As autonomous vehicles (AVs) grow in popularity and become more accessible to the public, how will the engineering industry be affected? Under state licensure laws and rules, professional engineers have a responsibility for protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public. AVs are still a fairly new concept, so there are still many unanswered questions and uncertainties.
The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) released a Public Regulatory Policy Guide to offer a starting point for adopting standards that protect public safety. NSPE’s stance on the matter of autonomous vehicles is that a professional engineer is the best person to have to carry out the testing and risk assessments that are necessary for public safety. They also seek to answer questions about how the technology can be developed to use existing roadways rather than dedicated AV lanes. In an ideal world, AVs and regular vehicles would be able to cohabitate the roads with ease, but it’s not that simple. Civil engineers will need to rethink infrastructure and road design to accommodate for the growing technology.
When it comes to roadway design, the current roads are designed wider than the average vehicle width to account for human error and distraction while driving. With autonomous vehicles, there is no room for human error, they will always stay the course even in a more narrow lane. If more narrow lanes are to be created, the extra space could be repurposed for a number of things, like a pedestrian lane or even a whole vehicle lane. Additionally, there would be less need for roadway safety measures like guard rails, wide shoulders, and rumble strips.
Another aspect of infrastructure that would have to be reconsidered is intersections. In a completely AV world, the need for traffic signals would be obsolete. The vehicles would be able to successfully communicate with each other to calculate vehicle speed and different routes to pass through an intersection with ease, and of course, no accidents. The world of 100 percent autonomous vehicles is a long way off, so in the meantime, engineers are tasked with figuring out what must change to accommodate the mix of standard vehicles and AVs.
The market of autonomous vehicles is projected to grow by billions of dollars in just the next few years! Due to the surge in growth, this era is creating new concentrations for engineers to become specialized in and it’s creating thousands of new jobs. Positions like safety testers of autonomous vehicles, computer scientists, AI specialists, civil engineers for roadway design, and much more.